Teaching and learning– what actually works?

TLDR; to improve your teaching and learning using evidence based techniques, see my top ten tips at the end of this article.

Ever since I was introduced to the ideas of learning styles back in my initial teacher training years, I have always been extremely sceptical of any new teaching and learning strategies that come my way. I have always reflected on my teaching practice and tried to deliver my subject in the most effective way(s) possible to benefit my students, but even then, I have always felt that there is still room for improvement – to be a more effective teacher. It wasn’t until I came across John Sweller’s ideas around Cognitive Load Theory and how it is put into deliberate practise at Michaela Community School that teaching and learning started to resonate with me once again.

“The aim of all instruction should be to improve long term memory, if nothing has been changed in long term memory, nothing has been learned” Kirschner et. al.

If we define learning as a change in long-term memory, then what evidence based strategies really work when it comes to getting students to learn?*

  1. Challenge misconceptions
    Misconceptions are a big problem for science teachers since students know lots of things about what you’re trying to teach them, but it turns out that many of these pre-conceived ideas are actually wrong, scientifically speaking. A list of common science misconceptions [at Key Stage 3] is given by Jonathan Whellan (@NottsAST) here, by the American Association for the Advancement of Science here and by the Physics Foundations project here.
    Dr. Derek Muller (@veritasium) of YouTube fame Veritasium recently did a TED talk on his PhD; “The key to effective educational science videos”. In the clip he talks about teaching first year undergraduate students about Newton’s 1st and 2nd laws of motion, after which he gives them a short multiple choice question exam. Next, he produces two videos on these subjects, randomly assigns each student to watch one of the videos and tests them again to see if there is any improvement in their learning. The first video is a very clear, concise & easy to understand exposition of Newton’s laws, however, in the second video he gets a member of the public to state the common misconceptions around Newton’s laws and then engages them in a social dialogue that causes cognitive dissonance. In the graphic below, each group of students is asked to give their opinions on each of the videos [regarding clarity of explanation]:

    Further to this Dr. Muller also asks both groups of students to rate their mental effort invlolved in watching the video. In Video 1 the students thought that they already knew the material so they didn’t really pay the utmost attention and therefore didn’t realise that what was being presented differed from their prior knowledge. In Video 2 they were forced to face up to their misconceptions through social dialogue which required a whole load more mental focus due to the effects of cognitive dissonance. On the post test [performed after watchting the video] there was a 5% increase in correct answers for group 1 [Video 1] but a 100% increase in correct answers for group 2 [Video 2], see graphic below.
    Many science teachers will already be familiar with the Concept Cartoons produced by Millgate House which crystallise many of the misconceptions held by students before teaching a scientific topic e.g. photosynthesis. What Dr. Muller’s research suggests is that we should engage our students in a social dialogue so that the student’s themselves see how their pre/misconceptions conflict with the world around them leading to better outcomes for all.


    “Where do trees get their mass from?” An example of a Concept Cartoon on photosynthesis by Millgate House and how Derek Muller engages with these misconceptions through video and social dialog to cause cognitive dissonance and therefore a change in long term memory.

    So you’ve finished your lesson on teaching photosynthesis to your students, how do you know you’ve dispelled those bothersome misconceptions that the students held at the beginning of the lesson? The answer to this is diagnostic questions – set a couple of multiple choice questions with one correct answer and three distractors (previous misconceptions). By using this kind of formative assessment you can readily use the feedback to inform your practise next lesson. This is further discussed in the Assessment for Learning section below.

  2. Memory is the residue of thought
    I think we can all agree that a successful lesson is one in which the content of the lesson is remembered by students many months down the line. Daniel Willingham, an American Cognitive Psychologist and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” has shown that the amount of learning taking place depends upon the level of cognitive engagement. He is often quoted for his definition that “memory is the residue of thought” i.e. students remember what they’ve been thinking about.  He says that teachers need to beware of preoccupying themselves too much with making subject matter entertaining and relevant to students [sometimes referred to as ‘edutainment’]..

    If a teacher has students baking biscuits to learn about the Underground Railroad or working on a PowerPoint to learn about the Spanish Civil War, what students will remember is how to bake a biscuit and how to make a smoking PowerPoint. They will remember next to nothing about the Underground Railroad and the Spanish Civil War!” – Educational Research Newsletter

    He goes on to say that “memory is not a product of what you want to remember or what you try to remember; it’s a product of what you think about.” Willingham suggests that teachers also need to find that “sweet spot of difficulty”. This sweet spot is often called the Zone of Proximal Development, the term is originally coined by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist.

    Vygotsky recognised that in order for students to learn they must be presented with tasks that are just out of reach of their current ability. Tasks that are already within a student’s current ability does not promote learning (students get bored). Tasks that are too complex also don’t promote learning (students become frustrated). Tasks in the Zone of Proximal Development are the things a student can almost do but still need help to accomplish. As help is slowly withdrawn and students are actively engaged/thinking about the task, they [eventually] become successful whilst laying down new long term memories.

  3. Learning requires forgetting & spaced practice
    All teachers will be familiar with the experimental work performed on memory by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, summed up by this famous graphic entitled the “Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.”forgetting_curve_en
    Ebbinghaus’ research showed that after first learning a new piece of knowledge you start forgetting this information almost immediately. In fact, you forget it most quickly immediately after you have learnt it! Ebbinghaus showed that the most effective way to retain this newly gained knowledge was to revisit it, repeatedly. The more repetitions you do, the flatter the forgetting curve becomes, until, at last, you have retained almost all the newly learned knowledge i.e. successfully stored in in long term memory where you will be able to recall it weeks and years into the future.The million-dollar question then, when should this first repetition take place? Robert Bjork, a distinguished research professor in memory at the Department of Psychology at the University of California, says..

    When we access things from our memory, we do more than reveal it’s there. It’s not like a playback. What we retrieve becomes more retrievable in the future. Provided the retrieval succeeds, the more difficult and involved the retrieval, the more beneficial it is…. You should space your study sessions so that the information you learned in the first session remains just barely retrievable. Then, the more you have to work to pull it from the soup of your mind, the more this second study session will reinforce your learning.  If you study again too soon, it’s too easy [i.e. retrieval is best when it’s effortful, when some forgetting has set in].” – Wired magazine

    While Ebbinghaus’ research applies to something that had already been taught/learnt, it also works in reverse. In their book “Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”, Brown et. al. talk about spaced & interleaved practice. A great blog post by Shaun Allison (@shaun_allison) summarises the findings here. Shaun concludes that in order to maximise the retention of knowledge: the first few minutes of every lesson should be focussed on looking back to previous material (to last lesson, last week, last month); Year 11 revision of topics A, B, C and D should be interleaved as ABCDABCDABCD and that the curriculum needs to account for spaced practice and the interleaving of topics from the outset. Hin-Tai Ting (@HinTai_Ting), a maths teacher at Michaela Community School has had amazing results with his weakest students using Siegfried Engelmann’s Connecting Maths Concepts – a teaching method that deliberately uses spaced practice and interleaving to maximise the retention of maths knowledge in students’ long term memory. You can read more here.

  4. Cognitive Load Theory
    Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at University College London, recently tweeted

    Cognitive Load Theory states that in order to learn, students must transfer information from working memory (where it is consciously processed) to long-term memory (where it can be stored and later retrieved). Students have limited working memory capacities that can be overwhelmed by tasks that are too cognitively demanding. The idea is summed up by imagining the brain as a bottle:

    Working memory has limited capacity, contrary to long term memory which has unlimited capacity. Since working memory can only hold 4 or 5 chunks (elements) of information at a time it acts as a bottleneck to learning. CLT aims to maximise the space we have in working memory by minimising extraneous cognitive load, this leads to greater transfer of knowledge into long term memory i.e. more learning occurs.There are various “effects” which have an impact on our cognitive load and it is these we need to bear in mind when considering our instructional design (source here):

    1. Worked Examples Effect – clear (and varied) worked examples reduce cognitive load providing they also reduce the….
    2. Split-Attention Effect – text should be included within the diagrams of worked examples to stop learners splitting their attention between multiple sources of information.
    3. Goal Free Effect – if working memory during problem solving is overloaded (so no learning occurs), instead remove the end goal. Ask students what could they work out from the set of information that they have.
    4. Modality Effect – by using both the auditory and visual channels working memory can be increased. When dealing with a diagram and text, instead of presenting the text in written form alongside the diagram, instead present it in spoken form – this opens up a second channel to working memory.
    5. Transient Information Effect – when demonstrating the modality effect, any spoken material should be short and to the point as the auditory channel is transient in nature.
    6. Redundancy Effect – Providing learners with any unnecessary information can overload their working memories.
    7. Completion Effect – when students are asked to complete the solution to a partially solved problem they learn more rapidly i.e. transfer knowledge to their long term memory more quickly than students who have not been shown any of the partial moves.
    8. Isolated Elements Effect – since cognitive load is high when there is a high degree of element interactivity, presenting element in their isolated form improves learning when compared to presenting them in the combined natural state i.e. don’t introduce GCSE exam questions too early, instead break down problems into their component parts.
    9. Imagination Effect – students asked to imagine concepts or procedures learn better than those who just study the materials.
    10. Expertise Reversal Effect – increased expertise reduces element interactivity and therefore cognitive load.

    Oliver Caviglioli (@olivercavigliol) has put together a series of visuals summarising the main points of Sweller, Ayres and Kalyuga’s book. More on this can be found here.

    More on how CLT can be used to reduce cognitive load in science can be found in blogs written by Niki Kaiser (@chemDrK) here and also Jasper Green (@sci_challenge) here.

  5. The Novice versus Expert learner

    In essence, when approached with a new problem, unless we are an expert, we are less likely to make links with existing knowledge and prior experiences to solve a problem… With this in mind, teachers need to be modelling explicitly how to approach problems making use of prior knowledge “ – Dan William’s (@FurtherEdagogy) excellent blog post on experts and novices.
    As novices, students don’t have enough mental schema to draw upon when faced with complex problems to solve. They instead tend to focus on the detail of the problem rather than think back to problems of a similar structure that they’ve faced before in order to make informed decisions. There is therefore a need to provide novices with information that is essential for their understanding. In order to minimise extraneous cognitive load, novice learners should receive detailed, explicit instructional support (see Chapter 12 of Sweller et al ).

    5a) Direct/Explicit/Didactic instruction
    So how do we deliver explicit instruction to our novice learners? Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman) has written an excellent post on the benefits of explicit instruction . This type of instructional design (compared to say inquiry based learning) minimises extraneous cognitive load by fully explaining and modelling ideas to students before they attempt to put them into practice themselves. Greg goes on to say that “teaching explicitly forces us to confront the curse of knowledge and break things down even more than we might initially”. This idea follows that of Japanese educators who are trained in the art of Bansho (the study of boardwork). Bansho is different from “chalk and talk” in that “80% of what the teacher writes on the board is still there at the end of the lesson. The board becomes a summary of the development of the lessons and students are encouraged to reflect back and make connections and new relationships between the different ideas” – Dylan Wiliam 52m30s


    Japanese educators trained in the art of Bansho – source here

    Explicit instruction further encourages the students to master skills and procedures through deliberate practise and worked examples before exposing them to a range of ever more varied and complex problems (see Isolated Element & Worked Example Effect in CLT). Some particularly good suggestions on great direct/explicit/didactic teaching have been written in a blog by Ben Newmark (@bennewmark) below:

    5b) Knowledge Organisers & key subject knowledge
    We have seen that novice learners require repeated exposure to knowledge that is essential to understanding their subject. Deans for Impact go further and say

    Each subject area has some set of fact that, if committed to long term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied.” – the Science of Learning.

    So how do repeatedly expose our students to this knowledge? Michaela Community School use Knowledge Organisers in each subject detailing all the key information students are expected to commit to memory. Homework at Michaela involves the student not only learning this information but also self-quizzing reinforce that learning. Teachers then monitor retention of this knowledge through regular low-stakes tests and less regular cumulative assessments.

    But what is a Knowledge Organiser (KO) and how do they work? Essentially a KO is a brief 1-2 page doc/ppt/pdf which sets out exactly what knowledge is vital in the curriculum for a given topic. It will often contain key definitions / timelines / equations / diagrams with numbering alongside each element (this allows teachers to set low-stakes quizzes on the relevant sections). James Theobald (@JamesTheo) has put together a fantastic “Knowledge Organisers: a how to” document that goes over these points and more.


    Knowledge Organisers have certainly been gaining traction in recent years, you can find out more about how schools have been using them in blogs by Joe Kirby (@joe__kirby ) here and Shaun Allison here. Some of the best KOs I have seen in science are produced by Nova Hreod Academy in Swindon.

  6. Assessment for Learning (of all students)
    The majority of teachers suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect; we over estimate our abilities in successfully imparting knowledge to our students. Since we have spent time carefully planning the content and delivery of our lessons, we expect the majority of the students to ‘get it’. We check for understanding by asking the class a pre-determined question, a handful of students raise their hands, they give the correct response and we move on. But are these three or four responses a good guide for what the rest of the class has learnt? No. What we should be doing is getting responses from students who have not raised their hands. Even better to check for understanding from every student every 20 minutes before moving on.

    Dylan Wiliam, co-author of the now legendary “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment”, suggests that the most effective way to check for whole class understanding this is through diagnostic multiple choice questions carefully designed to have ‘distractor’ answers that test for previous misconceptions. Students can then use finger voting, ABCD cards or mini white boards to their cast their individual choices. What students like about finger voting / MWBs is that as soon as their answer is erased there is no record of failure. A teacher can then use this immediate feedback to inform his/her practice going forward.
    fvotingTwo fantastic source for diagnostic questions are by Craig Barton (@mrbartonmaths) here (mainly Maths, Science, Languages & computing diagnostic questions) and the University of York Science Education Group here (science specific).

    Dylan goes on to say that if there are only 3 students who ‘got’ the last part of the lesson, ask all three to work out a way of explaining the idea to the rest of the class at the start of next lesson. The rest of the class can then vote for the best explanation. This has the additional benefit of creating a community of learners, stretching those higher ability students and enabling those students who didn’t get the concept first time around a chance to catch up.

  7. Effective group work
    Teachers often avoid group work because it is ineffective – you always seem to get a couple of students not pulling their weight while the others, usually the girls, do the majority of the work. How can we change this? Citing the work of Robert Slavin and Roger & David Johnson, Dylan Wiliam tells us that there are two essential prerequisites for effective group work:

    1. group goals: students should be working as a group, rather than just in a group.
    2. each member has to be accountable to the group’s success i.e. one student failing to put in their best learning efforts needs to have a negative effect on the likelihood of the group achieving its goals.

    As teachers, we rarely structure group work to achieve the second prerequisite, which ultimately leads to some students being passengers rather than active learners.

    Perhaps the most well-known strategy for achieving the goals above is to use home/expert groups (sometimes called jigsaw groups)  which is particularly good at incentivising each member of the group to pull their weight to work as a team.

    While this strategy is good, my favourite example is in a comment by Dylan responding to David Didau’s (@DavidDidau) blog on this subject. In his comment Dylan says:

    One particularly effective approach to this implemented by Brazilian maths teacher Roberto Baldino – students work in teams of four to master a chapter of a textbook, and when they think they are ready, they are tested individually. Each person in the group receives the score achieved by the lowest scoring member of the group.”

    While many teachers find this approach to be a little extreme, we must remember that this is what happens in the real world; one student missing a penalty in football harms the whole team’s chances, one student in an orchestra hitting a bad note harms everybody’s performance. If we are therefore serious about effective group work, we must ensure that the second prerequisite is always met.

  8. A mastery assessment system.
    Joe Kirby has written at length about creating a mastery assessment system here  and here. The main idea behind the mastery assessment system is to make use of frequent low stake testing (that the students mark) and less frequent cumulative testing (that the teachers mark, although this is a high impact, low effort exercise).

    The benefits of regular low stakes testing are two-fold (see Mr Barton’s podcast at 56 minutes):

    • students get the benefit of retrieval practice which is one of the most effective ways to transfer ideas into long term memory, see the learning scientists concept map on the benefits of retrieval practice here.
    • when students self-mark these low stakes tests and they find out what they did was incorrect they benefit from the hyper-correction effect; if you thought you were right, get the answer wrong then correct it you are likely to remember it for much longer.

    The frequent tests are low stakes since no data is collected by the teacher, instead pupils are asked ‘hands up who got 4 out of 5? Hands up who got 5 out of 5?’ Pupils who do well in the tests feel successful and motivated to work hard to revise.

    The less frequent (bi-annual) cumulative testing is also hugely beneficial since students are tested on everything they have learnt up to that point in their academic year (using their Knowledge Organisers as their main source of revision). As we have seen from first Hermann Ebbinghaus, then Robert Bjork’s research into how memory retains information, this constant reviewing/retrieval of older information maximises the transfer of knowledge into long-term memory.

    And finally, for teachers…. If you would like to learn more about evidence based pedagogy that has been developed to take account of the most important principles to emerge from research in cognitive psychology, please see:


    And for students… watch “How to Study Effectively for School – Top 6 Science-Based Study Skills” produced by the Learning Scientists and Memorize Academy:

    *NOTE – These strategies are not mine but sourced from great educational minds around the globe. I attach links to the relevant research papers / books / blogs in the text above.

    TLDR; improve you teaching and learning using these top 10 evidence based techniques:

    1. Check for misconception and challenging them through social dialogue.
    2. Students remember what they’ve been thinking about (ditch those poster lessons!).
    3. Curriculum design should account for spaced practice and interleaving of topics.
    4. Working memory has limited capacity; teachers need to minimise students’ cognitive load in order for learning to take place.
    5. Explicit instruction is far more effective than inquiry based learning.
    6. Consider using Knowledge Organisers to help students memorise vital information in your subject.
    7. Check for understanding from every student every 20 minutes before moving on.
    8. Effective group work requires each member to be accountable to the group’s success.
    9. Regular low stakes testing and less regular cumulative testing aids transfer of knowledge into long-term memory.
    10. Teach your students how to study more effectively!
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Life after levels: who’ll create a mastery assessment system?

Developing a Mastery Assessment system via Joe Kirby…

Pragmatic Education

Whosever redesigns their curriculum and assessment for life after levels will reap the benefits




A great many schools I know are now considering the question of what to do about assessment. ‘Is there an alternative to national levels?’ they are asking. After all, assessment drives the curriculum: the curriculum cannot be considered without considering how it is being assessed. Here is the argument that I am building up on this blog:


Our curriculum and assessment aren’t designed with memory in mind.

National levelsare imprecise, ill-sequenced and confusing.

So we must redesign our curricula and assessment for memory with precision, sequencing and visibility in mind.


“There is plenty of mileage in Joe Kirby’s mastery model, but it needs flesh on the bones to become a viable proposition,” said Chris Hildrew in a recent blog. This blogpost tries to flesh out the model, asking: what…

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FREE STUFF! Physics Shed Loads Of Practice With Immediate Formative Feedback

This is what formative feedback in science should look like…

Here are the Physics books I’ve done so far, they’re not quite perfected yet but I’ll update this page with newer versions when I get a chance. I’m hoping to work on “Forces” over the summer – saving the best ’til last!

6.1 Energy – I’ve missed off the first section as stores/pathways is too much drama for me to be fair. I’ll add it when I’ve sorted out what I think. Also I need to add units for spring constant and the word “store” to loads of places. https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1EnIwSSbgTgZGpMMmlOQWxBM0U/view?usp=sharing

6.2 Electricity – This is missing some stuff on parallel and I don’t know why! https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1EnIwSSbgTgMmZxY1N1RUpKQU0/view?usp=sharing

6.3 Particle Theory – I hope to add some more “Apply”-type questions soon https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1EnIwSSbgTgZlZFcGg1cVQyN00/view?usp=sharing

6.4 Atomic Structure https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1EnIwSSbgTgbkRUaTUyV3NaMmM/view?usp=sharing

6.5 Forces – currently working on this

6.6 Waves https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1EnIwSSbgTgLTNNcXdvWVliZlU/view?usp=sharing

6.7 Magnetism and Electromagnetism https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1EnIwSSbgTgWFZTQUpsQVZrZXM/view?usp=sharing

Please do let me know if you spot any typos or…

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Cognitive Load Theory

Embed from Getty Images

Having recently written a post on how Cognitive Load Theory informs the planning of lessons at Michaela Community School, I was thrilled to find that Oliver Cavigliol (@olivercavigliol) has been posting his own visual summaries of Sweller, Ayres and Kalyuga’s book ‘Cognitive Load Theory‘. See his visual summary of each of the book’s chapters below…(or find the complete pdf version here or PowerPoint here)


  1. Categories of Knowledge: An evolutionary approach
  2. Amassing Information: The information store principle
  3. Acquiring Information: The borrowing and reorganising principle
  4. Interacting with the External Environment
  5. Intrinsic and Extraneous Cognitive Load
  6. Measuring Cognitive Load
  7. The Goal Free Effect
  8. The Worked Example and Problem Completion Effects
  9. The Split-Attention Effect
  10. The Modality Effect
  11. The Redundancy Effect
  12. The Expertise Reversal Effect
  13. The Guidance Fading Effect
  14. Facilitating Effective Mental Processes
  15. The Element Interactivity Effect
  16. Altering Element Interactivity & Intrinsic Cognitive Load
  17. Emerging themes in CLT: Transient Information & Collective Working Memory

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‘The Michaela Way’ – the future of teaching and learning?

Over the Easter break I had the occasion to read ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’, edited by Katharine Birbalsingh. The book is written by Michaela’s teaching staff and senior leadership, describing the overarching philosophy behind how the Michaela Community School in Wembley Park operates to improve the lives of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. The book [and school] are hugely controversial in the educational world due to the radical break away from accepted educational pedagogy, SEN labels, school marking policies, no-excuses discipline and much more besides. I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest in education to read it.

While I didn’t agree with everything in the book, I did find that much of what was written about resonated deep within me. While initial teacher training (ITT) tends to teach progressive teaching methodologies with an emphasis on teachers as facilitators, learning by doing, group work, a de-emphasis on textbooks and highly personalized learning, Michaela Community School (whose tagline is ‘Knowledge Is Power’), focuses on a more traditional approach. This includes teacher-led classes, greater focus on knowledge and memorisation, regular testing (& competition), reading integrated into every lesson and exceptionally high and consistent expectations of every pupil regardless of ability or background.

Don’t get me wrong, on first hearing about Michaela on Twitter I thought it sounded like a Victorian grammar school with silence in the corridors and punishments doled out for the most minor of offences, but the more I read the book the more I changed my mind and started to question everything I had been taught during my teacher training all those years ago. Since my NQT year I have read voraciously on the most effective ways to teach and promote excellent outcomes for all of my students, but the more I read, the more inconsistencies I found between the various progressive pedagogies. This is particularly true of the educational based research that always seem to offer conflicting views on the next educational fad.

So why am I writing this blog? Well, over the Easter period, not only did I read about the founding principles of Michaela, but also about what cognitive science can tell us about learning and why direct instruction is superior to inquiry based learning and how all of this ties up with how Michaela operates.

This blog is split into 3 sections:

  • Part 1: Bloom’s taxonomy, knowledge and the forgetting curve
  • Part 2: Cognitive Load Theory
  • Part 3: Direct instruction

Part 1: Bloom’s taxonomy, knowledge and the forgetting curve

Doug Lemov (who runs the charter network Uncommon schools in the US) recently posted on Twitter that Bloom’s pyramid [of learning] is a problem. To paraphrase his argument: Teachers and senior leaders typically show disdain for the lower levels and that knowledge based questions, especially fact based or ‘closed’ questions are an unproductive way to teach. I would go further to say that in many schools, lesson observations are only  ‘outstanding’ if students are seen to be accessing the higher echelons of the pyramid with a given lesson.

However, what we always forget, and to quote from Doug’s blog, is:

“The framework elaborated by Bloom and his collaborators consisted of six major categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. The categories after Knowledge were presented as “skills and abilities”, with the understanding that knowledge was the necessary precondition for putting these skills and abilities into practice.”

Note that critical thinking and problem solving cannot happen successfully until the underlying knowledge is in the long term memory of students so that they can readily and automatically access it.

But how do we keep the knowledge in student’s heads? I’m sure we have all marked Year 11 or Year 12 mock exams and been amazed about how muck knowledge seems to have been forgotten. How do we make sure that knowledge gets embedded into long term memory? The 19th century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus explored the nature of forgetting, noting how forgetting follows an exponential relationship with time i.e. forgetting happens most rapidly right after learning has occurred, then begins to slow down.


Source: http://elearninginfographics.com/memory-retention-and-the-forgetting-curve-infographic/

The secret of embedding knowledge into long term memory (and therefore allowing it to be recalled more quickly) is to review, or test the new knowledge periodically, with those periods of review becoming ever increasingly further apart over time.

Early on in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’, Joe Kirby (@joe__kirby‏), a Deputy Head teacher at Michaela, talks about the importance of knowledge, memory and testing. He says:

Every lesson in every subject at Michaela starts with a low-stakes, open-question recap quiz. Pupils get instant feedback, correct their mistakes and improve their answers, but no score is recorded, tracked or monitored…The pupils feel motivated by learning, mastering and remembering so many tangible facts that they can find connections.”

“If we want our students to automate complex concepts, we need to ensure sufficient time, focus, attention, revisiting, application, consolidation, practice, usage and eventual mastery.”

Joe then goes on to talk about a centralised system of homework as revision. At Michaela homework is self-quizing for all pupils across all their subjects (no teacher marking) using departmental designed knowledge organisers, which…

“…specify in meticulous detail the exact facts, dates, characters, concepts and precise definitions that all pupils are expected to master in long-term memory. They organise onto a single page the most vital, useful subject knowledge for each unit…At a single glance, knowledge organisers answer the question for teachers and pupils: “what is most important for us not to forget?”. Everything the pupils need to know is set out clearly in advance.”

One can immediately see how pupils at Michaela, through repeated tests, revision, practise and consolidation, are moving the knowledge they have learnt in class into their long term memory such that they will be able to recall it many months, if not years later.

Part 2: Cognitive Load Theory (CLT)

Ok, so we know what we want students to learn and we know how we can review that knowledge to get it into long-term memory BUT how do we ensure that students understand what we are teaching them on the first pass so that everybody ‘gets it’ first time around?

In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. Cognitive load theory differentiates cognitive load into three types:

  1. intrinsic load – the effort associated with a specific topic
  2. extraneous load – the way information or tasks are presented to a learner
  3. germane load – work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge [as schemas* in long term memory]

*a schema is a mental structure used to organise knowledge.

A useful YouTube clip on Cognitive Load Theory by the Global Education Academy can be found below:

Essentially, when processing new information we use our working memory which is very limited in the amount of information it can deal with. We want to maximise the space we have in working memory so learners can process information easily and effectively. Too often students have their working memory overloaded when being taught in lessons (see podcast by Greg Ashman at the end of this blog), resulting in a reduction in the amount of material that can be successfully learnt.

An example of this can be seen in Dr Derek Muller’s ‘The science of thinking’ – see clip below. Dr Muller talks about two characters, Drew (your working memory) and Gun (your long term memory), showing how your working memory is quickly overloaded until deliberate practice and periodic review stores the new information into long term memory (as a given schema) where is can be retrieved quickly and automatically [see 2m58s to 5m28s].

So to make lessons more effective we need to make sure we are not overloading students working memory. This can be done by reducing intrinsic load by minimising unnecessary information and scaffolding new information (by hanging it off previous schemas in the long term memory), reducing extraneous load by using clear labelled diagrams and worked examples, and maximising germane load (through minimising the other two).

Head of science, Drew Thomson (@mrthomson), writes an interesting blog below on how he is using CLT to maximise his impact in the classroom, see below:

One trap teachers often fall into as ‘experts’ in their subjects is that we forget what it is like to be the ‘novice’ student learning a topic for the first time, and how easily their working memories become overloaded. Dr Deborah Netolicky does a superb job in reminding us what a ‘novice’ feels like in her blog about moving house and the mental effort it took (overloading her working memory) to carry out mundane routines that were previously automatic (long term memory) to her.

“For me, the mental work of existing somewhere new, without the automaticity that comes with entrenched habit (or, as cognitive load theorists might call it, cognitive schemata in my long term memory) was immense and intense. I felt that I was living in a fog, and existing at about 40% of my usual capacity. The simplest of tasks were arduous, time consuming, and took what seemed like excessive cognitive effort. My husband asked me what was wrong with me; I knew that the relocation had taken my working memory beyond its capacity to cope. I was moving as through wet concrete. I felt displaced.”

Cognitive Load Theory is something every teacher should be made aware of in their initial teacher training to enable them to be more effective in their planning of lessons (and in my case as a science teacher – experiments).

Part 3: Direct instruction

In a recent edition of Mr Bartons Maths Podcast, Greg Ashman (@greg_ashman), a maths and science teacher and PhD researcher in CLT, discusses ‘Cognitive Load Theory and Direct Instruction vs Inquiry Based Learning’. The Podcast is long (2h30m) but immensely interesting and can be found below and here:


If I was to boil down the podcast to a single idea, it would be the following: inquiry or discovery based learning [as often promoted in ITT] overloads a students working memory to the extent that they don’t retain the essential information you want them to learn. Much better to use direct or explicit instruction in a clear and concise manner with plenty of worked examples.

Interestingly ‘direct instruction’ of students doesn’t seem to be something that the majority of teachers have been trained in to use effectively. Unfortunately, this may be because direct instruction is often associated with ‘chalk and talk’ or ‘sage on the stage’ lessons – BUT as shown in ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way’ these lessons are very enjoyable and highly effective. In her chapter on ‘Drill and Didactic teaching work best’ Olivia Dyer (@oliviaparisdyer) goes through the structure of a typical science lesson which includes; whole-class recap, individual-recap, whole-class reading [improving literacy rates], individual drill and whole-class instruction. At times I felt very uncomfortable reading this chapter, again due to the way I was initially taught to teach – but ultimately I can see why this type of teaching IS effective.

“Memorisation through drill files knowledge into long-term memory and so alleviates working memory to enable pupils to apply what they know to a new scenario…As pupils drill the knowledge we teach, their store of knowledge will become increasingly flexible, as will their ability to use that knowledge”.  

Olivia goes on to say:

“Knowledge that was discovered by geniuses is not instantly intuitive to school-age children. If this knowledge is not explained to pupils, they are left to discover for themselves and end up floundering”.

As a science teacher this last sentence rang very true. How often have I clearly explained a series of tasks to investigate how potential difference varies over a series or parallel circuit, only for it to cause so much confusion that I have had to reteach it from the front the very next lesson!

So direct or explicit instruction seems to be the way forward to minimise cognitive load and effectively impart knowledge to students. However, as students ourselves I am sure we have all sat through exceptionally dull ‘chalk and talk’ lessons, so how do we do direct instruction well? Ben Newmark (@bennewmark) has written a series on excellent blogs on this:

Distilling this down to the main points:

  • Teachers must be experts in their subject knowledge
  • Students must have exemplary behaviour in class
  • Clarity of explanation (stressing key ideas reduces cognitive load)
  • Use storytelling techniques (students find stories easier to remember)
  • Use repetition and interleaving
  • Use clear illustrations [and worked examples]

To conclude

To bring this full circle, I think many of the points raised in this blog are the reasons why the Michaela Community School appears to work so well for some of the country’s most disadvantaged students (I concede that Michaela have yet to be visited by Ofsted and do not yet have a set of GCSE results to be measured against). But it only works because no one teacher is an island, all staff are giving out the same consistent message, students have exceptional behaviour and everyone is ‘rowing together’ in their delivery of knowledge content (through their understanding of both CLT and effective direct instruction) to give all pupils at the school the very best possible start in life.


This post written by Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) on ‘Explanations: Top 10 Teaching Tips” is a MUST READ:

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Intervention strategies for A-level physics (and A-level science in general)


A-level Physics is difficult. If you don’t believe me, see my previous blog post “Mirror, Mirror on the wall, which is the hardest A-level subject of them all?”

Our current entry requirements to study A-level physics in the sixth form are a grade B in GCSE Maths and grade B in GCSE Physics (or grade B in Core & Additional Science). While at first these grades might seem reasonable to study a science at A-level, you need to remember that students only need to score between 45 & 50% of the marks in these GCSE papers to come out with a couple of grade Bs – a very worrying statistic!!

While we do set, and expect, our future Year 12 students to do work over the summer holidays (before starting in September), inevitably there are large gaps in their knowledge base that need to be plugged. During the first 6 weeks of the course we spend a great deal of time trying to get students up to speed, setting large quantities of homework along the way so students know what to expect from the outset. Even so, we have a very high drop out rate going from Year 12 into Year 13 (~50%) which is not unusual for all science A-level subjects. We have just started teaching the new (terminal) A-level science syllabus to our Y12 students which have even more content that last year, so 2015-16 is certainly going to be even more challenging than the previous year.

As such, it is my goal this year to identify problem Year 12 students early on in the academic year (those with lower than expected progress) and put intervention strategies in place for them before things become unrecoverable in the summer when our students sit their AS-level examinations.

Everyone likes a list…….so, here are my top 10 A-level Physics intervention strategies (in no particular order):

  1. Day one
    Get to know your new Year 12 students, their strengths and their weaknesses. A great blog post by misslowephysics suggests getting all students to fill out an A-level questionnaire (see below).
    questionnaireThe advantage of getting your students to fill this in is that you can immediately see if students are taking complementary A-level subjects (such as Chemistry, Maths, Further Maths) and which students are not. Straight away you will get a feel for which students may need more support from you at the outset. You also will get a good feeling for their confidence in mathematics – an essential skill for A-level physics (which is often overlooked by the students).
  2. Essential catch-up material
    As mentioned previously, if students ‘just’ meet the entry criteria to study A-level physics, then they could be missing up to 50% of the prerequisite knowledge needed for the course. To this end I strongly encourage them to purchase (and read!)the following catch-up guides:-> Head Start to A-level Physics (£4.79), and
    -> Essential Maths Skills for A-level Physics (£7.50), OR
    -> Maths Skills for A-level Physics (£9.99)


  3. FREE Physics resources
    Students often feel confused as to where to go if they need extra help and resources on the subject (in addition to their textbooks and physics teacher). To this end at the start of Year 12 we give each of the students the following letter:”Dear Y12 physicist,Welcome to A-level Physics! This course will be hard but extremely rewarding! In order for you to succeed in this course your physics teachers have put together some free resources for you to follow.

    REMEMBER – for every hour spent in the classroom, you should spend AT LEAST another hour at home doing background reading, making extra notes AND completing questions from your textbook to check your understanding (answers in the back). This work is IN ADDITION to any homework set by your teachers.”

    ……the letter goes onto list all the free A-level physics stuff available on the web. Please click here for the most recent draft.

  4. Interactive ALPS spreadsheet
    The Advanced Level Performance System (or Alps) accounts for over 70% of all A-levels taken. The reports generated by Alps allows schools to compare 93 different A-level subjects directly against other schools drawing from over from 2,500 datasets (at time of writing). The methodology calculates a Value-Added score for each A-level department using students KS4 average points scores and their (exam) grades in your particular subject as an input. The Value-Added score that is generated can be compared to other schools in the Alps dataset to return your subject’s percentile and its associated Alps band 1 (blue=underperforming) to 9 (red=overperforming).While the methodology has been designed to collate each student’s Value-Added score and return an overall Alps band for a given A-level subject, in principle you can return an Alps band for each student aswell. By doing so you can immediately see which students are underperforming and need strategic intervention. See screenshot below.ALPS
  5. Personalised physics revision guides (aka the physics bible)
    Some of my A-level students are particularly bad when it comes to organising their loose paper notes. Be it chronologically, by topic, by indexing the syllabus, by subject teacher etc etc. This therefore make it virtually impossible for these students to revise effectively come their mocks or summer exams. Not only this, but some students don’t even make use of their physics textbook (surely not you gasp!).In order to kill two birds with one stone we stole a simple but effective idea from our Chemistry colleagues; give each student an exercise book to be used for their best notes.
    At the end of each topic the students must write a summary of all the key points, diagrams, equations and calculations for that particular chapter of the textbook just covered. They need to use the specification to check they have covered all the key aspects and show wider reading and worked examples where appropriate. Of course some students are better than this than other so we also provide a more structured breakdown for our students when needed. This book is then marked after/during every topic and written feedback given which the students must respond to. Whilst a very simple idea which the students initially disliked – they are all starting to see the value in this process and realise that they will essentially have a personalised physics revision guide by the time they get to their summer exams.
  6. Three act science
    I am also in the process of using three-act-science to engage with my [weaker] students. Dan Meyer, a former high school maths teacher and original inventor of this concept, often felt that his maths students had the following issues:-> Lack of initiative
    -> Lack of perseverance
    -> Lack of retention
    -> Aversion to word problems
    -> Eagerness for the formulaHe realised that they way to rectify this was to give his students interesting open ended Maths problems – see his now famous three acts of a mathematical story or March 2010 TED talk. More recently, Neil Atkin used this idea to come up with an alternative approach to science teaching; three-act-science.  In essence we can get our [weaker] students to engage more with [physics] problems using a 3 stage strategy (called acts). As an example, consider teaching the stability features of objects.

    Act 1: The hook. This should engage every learner. There should be few demands on either the language or the maths. It should ask for a little and offer a lot….see clip below on stability:

    Act 2: The explore – students talk through their ideas. How might this link to other things I have learnt or seen before? Could any of my initial beliefs be wrong? What could we do to get extra information?

    Act 3: The reveal – show students the outcome. Does this match their predictions? How does this link in with the A-level curriculum? Answer to the clip can be found here.

  7. Lots and lots of exam questions!!
    Previous experience has shown me that while our physics students often feel that they ‘get’ a topic, when it comes to the public examinations they often become unstuck because the physics concept has been presented to them in an unfamiliar context. To try to mitigate this, at the start of a topic I like to give out a large range of previous past paper questions. I tell the students to look through all the questions and identify anything that may look familiar to them from their science GCSE. At first very little is highlighted and of course they cannot answer any of the questions. Next, every couple of lessons, I ask them to get out their questions again and go through them a second, third and fourth time. Usually by the third+ time students start to feel that can answer some of the questions, until at the end of the topic the majority of the questions should be accessible to them. While I will then take in and mark and give feedback to their answers, every now and again I will ask the students to come up to the whiteboard and work through some of the more tricky questions. When they have finished I will ask the next student how the answer could be improved, and so on and so on until we have iterated all the way to the correct solution. Finally I will ask them to ‘guess’ what the markscheme would award marks for and inevitably they get the majority of the marks correct because they are critically evaluating each others answers & ideas through this process.
  8. Maths revision classes
    By far and away the most pressing issue when it comes to students underachieving in A-level physics is not have the necessary maths skills to cope with the A-level curriculum (see my blog post on formula triangles). While there is no pre-requisite to study A-level Maths in order to study A-level Physics, the reality is that the majority of students who make it into Year 13 study both. This means that students in Year 12 who aren’t taking any other mathematical A-levels (such as Maths, Further Maths, Chemistry etc) need extra support from us. My plan this year is to put on regular extra maths support classes for these students in order to get them up to speed in these problem areas.
  9. Extra-curricular HAB club
    Apart from covering the physics curriculum, I really wanted to inspire my students interest in physics outside in the *real* world. This year we have partnered up with European Astrotech to run a High Altitude Balloon (HAB) project with all of our physics sixth formers. This is an educational project for students to gain first-hand experience of planning and designing their own scientific experiments which will be launched on a high altitude balloon from the school field to the edge of space, followed by the collection, analysis and presentation of their results. A short clip produced by European Astrotech can be found below.
    https://youtu.be/06NfiQ7rdicThis project has captured the imagination of ALL the physics students and got them talking about this subject outside of the classroom. Even my weaker students are really fired up  by the possibilities that this project offers which I hope will spill over into their more formal A-level lessons!
  10. Teacher CPD
    On Saturday 11th June 2016 I’ll be attending the research Ed Maths and Science conference in Oxford, a one-day conference focused on Maths and Sciences educational research. There is a huge array of teachers, researchers and other leading figures in Maths and Science to talk about the evidence behind what really works when teaching these subjects in the classroom. I’m really interested in the talks on gender balance in physics and intervention strategies for A-level physics students as used by other leading practitioners. A full list of speakers can be found here.
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Rearranging equations? Beware the formula triangle!


The dreaded formula triangle! Image credit: http://goo.gl/x8eVWt

GCSE physics papers have a relatively high mathematical content (20%-30%), so if you are a higher tier student who cannot rearrange equations you are at a serious disadvantage. As teachers, how should we teach our students this algebraic skill? Formula triangles are often a popular way of introducing this topic. Indeed, while in popular use across Key Stage 3, GCSE (and A-level!!!), recent discussions in educationinchemistry, TES & Reddit  seem to imply that formula triangles are a bit like MarmiteTM; you either love them, or hate them.

I’ll put my cards on the table now …………. I’m a hater of the formula triangle.


What is a formula triangle?

Formula triangles are a tool to help students use equations without needing to rearrange them themselves. Consider the famous Ohms Law equation V=IxR (see top graphic), if you want an equation for current, cover up “I” with your finger and the required equation is “V÷R”. Or if you want resistance, cover up “R” and the required equation is “V÷I”. Finally, if you want voltage, cover up “V” and the required equation is “IxR”.

Ok, so far so good. I can do algebra without learning any algebra, how awesome is that!! 🙂

Well, here’s the thing…..formula triangles can only be used in a very specific set of algebraic cases. You can can only have 3 terms in the equation, and the subject of the given equation MUST:

  1. be equal to two things multiplied together
    ___ = ____ x  ____   e.g. Voltage = Current x Resistance,OR,
  2. be equal to the one thing divided by another
    ___ = ____ ÷ _____    e.g. Power = Energy ÷ Time


I’ll admit that the majority (although not all) GCSE physics equations follow this general rule and so as an NQT I used to teach the triangle to ALL my students. However, I am now somewhat wiser and have realised that although my students may know how to use the formula triangle to generate equations in their 3 different guises, unfortunately for them they don’t get the triangles on their GCSE equation sheets. Instead they must take an equation and first construct the triangle themselves in order to then use it. “Hah!” you say, “well that’s ok, they can make the triangle and will know if they have done it correctly by checking that the original equation comes back out of it” – alas, you would think so wouldn’t you! It turns out that for a GCSE physics student this is far more difficult than it sounds…

At this point let’s go to the twitter poll……

Yep…..as you can see from the massive 37 votes in the poll, we need to find a *NEW* way to teach the rearranging of equations to our science students. So what is the answer?

The line

Mr Thornton of YouTube fame does an excellent job of using “the line” to teach the rearranging of GCSE physics equations with 3 (or more) terms. In fact, using this very simple technique it is possible to take any equation from the GCSE physics equation sheets (see AQA’s P1 and P2) and rearrange them for any term. Again, students can use a simple “rule” without understanding the basics of algebra to get the correct answer.

The balance method

While “the line” approach seems to work well in most situations at GCSE, my main issue with it is that students don’t have to understand what or why they are performing these algebraic manipulations. The balance method is often described as the ‘best’ method for teaching algebraic manipulations and found in many scientific textbooks. This is also a simple rules based approach based on the fact that when a quantity is moved from one side of an equation to the other:

  • positive terms become negative and vice versa;
  • numerators become denominators and vice versa

This method is more comprehensive that either the formula triangle, or the line, since it allows students to deal with multiplication, division, addition AND subtractions. This is my favourite technique for teaching the rearranging of algebraic equations (at A-level). A great introduction in given in BBC Bitesize and by Primrose Kitten on her YouTube channel:

Answering GCSE physics exam questions

While I think that the balance method is the way forward for more complex algebraic manipulations, I would still advise against it when answering GCSE exam questions. Whoa! I thought you just said that the balance method was the best???

Let me show you the best way to answer these types of GCSE physics questions with a worked example from AQA’s P2 exam from summer 2012. The exam paper can be downloaded for free here (mark scheme here). Primrose Kitten also gives a wonderful YouTube summary here.



Question 4(a) on the paper starts with a simple Gravitational Potential Energy question [2 marks]. The student is given the mass, height, gravitational field strength and then asked to identify the correct equation from the equation sheet (no triangles!) and calculate the GPE of a miner at the top of a slide:


Of course, the correct equation to identify is:


so putting all the correct numbers into this equation gives GPE = 80kg x 10 N/kg x 15m = 13,500 Joules.

Question 4(b) follows on by asking the student to calculate the maximum possible speed of the miner at the bottom of the slide [3 marks]. At this point the student should realise that all the Gravitational Potential Energy is turned into Kinetic Energy:


The correct equation to choose from the equation sheet is:


The question asks us to solve for the speed so at this point MOST students turn to their favourite formula triangle, or have a bash at rearranging the Kinetic Energy equation using “the line” or even better, the “balance method”.


HOWEVER I implore you to stop and take a look at the mark scheme:


Yes, it’s crazy I know, but look – you get 2 marks (out of a maximum of 3) for substitution of the numbers directly into the Kinetic Energy formula WITHOUT ANY REARRANGING!!!!

You have got 66.6% of the marks (grade B) on this question without doing any algebraic manipulation whatsoever! This direct substitution of the numbers into an equation (without rearranging) is given marks every single time.

Ok, yes you do have to do some rearranging in the final step, but the bonus here (in my experience) is that students are often much better at doing this last step when they are using real numbers as opposed to abstract variable terms.


To gain the maximum marks when answering GCSE physics questions that involve equations:

  1. List all the quantities given by the question (including any units)
  2. Identify the correct equation from the physics equation sheet
  3. Convert any units required by the equation e.g. cm -> m
  4. Substitute all the numbers directly into the equation [this will get you the majority of the working marks]
  5. Finally, (and only if necessary) rearrange the equation to find the answer you’re looking for
  6. Quote the answer to the correct number of significant figures (if asked) with the correct unit.

Final note: At A-level I would expect students to be fluent at algebraic manipulations using the balance method. While I m not against more able students using the balance method at GCSE, unfortunately due to the way mark schemes award mathematical working marks (see above), I would advise against it.


February 2017 – this blog by Pritesh Raichura (@Mr_Raichura) on how he teaches equations in science is SUPERB!

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